openDemocracyUK: Opinion

The Queen beckons Britain into Covid-nationalism trap

Elizabeth Windsor's speech about COVID-19 tried to spin our profound feelings about the pandemic into nationalist sentiment

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
6 April 2020, 1.25pm
Elizabeth Windsor

In less than five minutes, Elizabeth Windsor did more to rally the country behind the government than Boris Johnson has managed in a month.

Since Coronavirus arrived in the UK, two different stories have jostled for prominence in the public mind.

On the one hand, there is the material: a story of incompetence in high office, of government failure and human suffering; the lack of rigorous testing or personal protective equipment, the fumbled shift from herd immunity to social isolation; a bailout which fails to support millions and a foreign policy which fails to secure international coordination.

On the other, there is the sentimental: the summoning of ‘national spirit’, the rallying around the flag, the demands that we ‘unite’, and the subtle silencing of criticism that implies.

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Speaking ahead of the week in which the scale of this crisis is likely to strike us all deeply, Mrs Windsor attempted to steer our profound and confused feelings behind the second of these stories – and so behind a struggling monarchy and national project, and their political wing: the Conservative party.

Rainbows and clapping

For millions of people, the experience of this crisis is one of sensory overload. Rolling news on TV screens and Twitter timelines throws us an endless stream of facts and feelings, from horror to hope, gratitude to rage. To make any kind of sense of these fragments of reality, we need to turn them into stories, and in a confusing world, familiar tales are the most comforting.

Like a skilled musician, the virtuoso of British nationalism drew out these feelings that millions of her subjects already had, and carefully associated herself with them. The admiration we’ve all felt for front line workers, risking their lives to care for us and feed us. The joy we’ve all felt on our daily permitted exercise at spotting windows filled with children’s rainbows. The fear we’ve all felt as we looked the mortality of our loved ones in the eye.

Summoning the strength of all of these emotions, she named them as “the pride in who we are”, laying national claim to “the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good humoured resolve, and of fellow-feeling”. The latter term used, of course, because if she used the more common ‘solidarity’, then no one would accept the obviously absurd idea that these are specifically British characteristics.

Royalist propaganda

This was an important piece of propaganda for the Royal Family. So far, their only relevance to this story had been that Charles Windsor had caught the virus, and then broken government guidelines to travel with it to his holiday home in a remote corner of Scotland, risking overwhelming the local health services. When Scotland’s chief medical officer did exactly the same thing, she was (rightly) forced to resign. No such fate for the heir to the throne.

The most notable comment from any senior royal up to now surely comes from Elizabeth’s husband Philip Mountbatten, who declared himself to be pro-virus in 1988, saying: "In the event that I am reincarnated, I would like to return as a deadly virus, to contribute something to solving overpopulation". But for some reason much of our country’s fearless media seems to have forgotten that.

The last time the family made any real headlines was when Harry and Meghan made the hop, skip and jump from the TV and tabloid power-base his grandmother had carved out into the filtered spotlight of Instagram influence. As I wrote at the time, with their split from their official roles, they launched themselves as the Royal family of surveillance capitalism, dragging the House of Windsor from the epoch of print nationalism to the era of trans-Atlantic Netflix nationalism.

And more broadly, the virus arrived at a moment of peril for her ‘precious’ union, when polls showed record support for both Scotland and Northern Ireland leaving the UK.

But Elizabeth’s speech made the moment about her. Just as she learned to follow Diana down the road to populism before, the Queen now followed Harry and broadcast her address live on Facebook and Twitter. The Royals, she was saying, have adapted to the age of social isolation, and social media.

The most viewed news programme in British history was the Panorama interview with Princess Diana in 1995, which attracted 23.5 million viewers. By the end of this week, this broadcast will likely have surpassed that number.

Nationalist propaganda

The speech was both a moment of royalist propaganda salivated over by the establishment media, and a moment of nationalist propaganda in the middle of a global crisis.

Are not the virtues of which she spoke common to all of humanity? Does the ‘fellow-feeling’ she highlighted not extend far beyond the UK and the Commonwealth, as much to Italians as Australians, to Brazillians as Canadians?

A nation, as Benedict Anderson famously wrote, is an imagined community. And in her address, the Queen took iconic elements of the community response to COVID-19: children’s pictures of rainbows, clapping for the NHS, and plonked a Union Flag in the middle of them, claiming them for Britain, and Britishness, and firmly drawing a line around our imagined community, with her at the centre of it. We may collaborate with the rest of the world, but we do so, first and foremost in her rhetoric, as “Britons”.

In shaping this nationalist narrative, she inevitably drew on the UK’s foundation myth, the point when Britain was transformed from an empire into a country: World War Two, concluding with her Vera Lynn reference “we will meet again”.

Political propaganda

This reassertion of the nation is a boost to bed-bound Boris Johnson as his regime struggles to deal with the crisis.

Her pleas for unity make it easier to denounce criticism of his management of the crisis as ‘division’, even when public disagreement with dangerous policies is needed to save lives.

Her address shifts the story about the crisis from one about the actions of the powerful - of government failure or success - to one about individual heroism. We should of course praise the heroes of this crisis. But the flip side of this coin is the narrative of individual blame that the government is using to scapegoat ordinary people for its own failures, distracting from the lack of personal protective equipment by denouncing Londoners in crowded housing for sitting down in the sun.

And it also boosts the Conservatives because they are the party of Anglo-British nationalism. For decades, English people have continued to vote Tory, despite disagreeing with their policies on most major issues almost as much as Scottish and Welsh people do. This is because English national identity is more bound up with the institutions of Britain’s empire state, and the monarchy most of all.

From the Falklands War in 1983 to Brexit in 2019, the Tories have long used Anglo-British nationalism to secure popular consent to govern despite their otherwise unpopular and generally disastrous policy programme. In recent weeks, the government has managed the crisis catastrophically. But the Conservatives have soared in the polls as sentimental nationalism has trumped material reality.

Boris Johnson dreamed his whole life of an opportunity to deliver Chuchillian speeches, rallying the nation at a time of need. But when his moment came, he fluffed it, unable to summon the charisma, and then finding himself bed-ridden. By the end of last week, even the usually compliant media was beginning to tire of the government’s excuses, smelling the anger that was stewing in the country.

But as is so often the case, when the Tories fumble, the institutions of the British state ride in to rescue them. And there is no more potent part of those institutions than the Queen herself. In 1867, the constitutional expert Walter Bagehot argued that the role of the monarchy is to “excite and preserve the reverence of the population”.

Last night, the Queen was deployed expertly to try to secure that reverence. But we need to understand that this nationalist call for unity is a trap. Because if we don’t stand up to this government as it fails to keep us safe through this crisis, thousands will needlessly die, and the system which has killed them won't.

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